Casualties of the NFL
Credit: Brian DeMarco speaks with his wife during a congressional hearing on the NFL's system for compensating retired players. Win McNamee / Getty Images
Jennifer smith spent a week with the DeMarcos, getting their rent paid and utilities settled, then persuading a wealthy friend of Gridiron Greats to buy the family a used truck. All told, the fund has given them more than $20,000, though it can't extend itself much further.

"We're a new nonprofit with a tiny staff, and there are a lot of guys out there who need our help," says Smith, a vibrant blonde in her early 40s who quit TV and film producing to run the fund. It raises money primarily through its online auction of football memorabilia (gridirongreats.org), and has so far taken in about $400,000 in the seven months since opening its doors. "What Brian needs – what all our guys need – is for the league and union to honor their obligations. We're a Band-Aid at best."

Smith put DeMarco in touch with Cy Smith (no relation), the lawyer who helped win almost $2 million for the children of the late Mike Webster. DeMarco will file – again – for his disability benefits, this time with Smith over his shoulder. "I can't tell you how grateful we are," DeMarco says. "If Jennifer hadn't stepped in when she did, we'd've been out in the street with our two kids. We're nowhere near safe yet, but –" he stops himself short, perilously close to tears "at least we're part of the way there."

Before Smith left town she enacted one last mercy. On a smoldering June day she piled the DeMarcos into a truck and took them to a pawn shop in north Austin. She'd called ahead, and owner Mark Ekrut had the goods in question ready for their arrival.

Out of a plastic bag came a weathered pigskin that had been signed by every member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a keepsake given to DeMarco by his teammates from the Jags' inaugural season. Smith had redeemed the ball to auction online; all proceeds will go to the DeMarcos for living expenses.

DeMarco, who'd been hovering near tears all morning, clasped it to his chest and broke down. In a near-empty store on a Thursday morning, his sobs echoed off the hocked golf clubs and band saws and dusty Jesus crosses in the case. "Thank you," he croaked to Ekrut, who'd advanced him $1,000 and never put his treasures up for sale. "Forget it," said Ekrut. "I knew you'd come back. You're a good man who fell on hard times."

DeMarco thanked him again, then thanked and hugged Smith, laughing, crying, and wincing all at once. Taking up his football, he started for the door, a long, slow haul on one good leg.

Additional reporting by Jordan Heller